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For daily, festive, ceremonial, and ritual events, African clothing, like clothes everywhere else, conveys age, gender, profession, ethnicity, power, and religious devotion.  Africans use Islamic and indigenous clothing in addition to trendy Western clothing.  Dressing include completely or partly covering the body with clothing and accessories such as head coverings and jewelry, as well as altering the body with tattoos or piercing.  For Africans, dressing properly entails correct behavior and exquisite style, which includes suitable clothing, cosmetics, and coiffure, as well as spectacular carriage, graceful movement, meticulous toilette, and spotless clothes.  Everyday African clothing expresses personal idiosyncrasy as well as socially important categories.  When Africans wear uniforms or clothes made from the same fabric, their clothing promotes group connection while minimizing individualism. 


Agbada is a four-piece male outfit worn by the Yoruba people of southern Nigeria and Benin, West Africa. 

It consists of an awosoke (big, free-flowing outer robe), an awotele (undervest), sokoto (long pants), and fla (hat). 

The outer robe is a large, loose-fitting, ankle-length cloth from which the complete costume gets its name, agbada, which means "voluminous attire." It is divided into three sections: a rectangular centerpiece with broad sleeves on each side. 

The centerpiece, which is normally embroidered front and back, includes a neck hole (orun) and a large pocket (apo) on the left side. 

Depending on how much a patron can spend, the density and extent of the embroidery varies greatly. 

The buba, a loose, round-neck shirt with elbow-length sleeves, and the dansiki, a loose, round-neck, sleeveless smock, are the two styles of undervest. 

Yoruba trousers come in a variety of styles and lengths, all with a drawstring to secure them around the waist. 

Sooro, a close-fitting, ankle-length, narrow-bottomed piece, and kembe, a loose, wide-bottomed piece that goes just beyond the knee but not as far as the ankle, are the two most common agbada pants. 

The agbada may be worn with a variety of headwear; the most common, the gobi, is cylindrical in shape and is between nine and ten inches long. 

It may be squeezed and curved forward, sideways, or backward when worn. 

The abetiaja, which means "dog-eared one," has a crestlike form and is named for the hanging flaps that may be used to cover the ears in cold weather. 

The two flaps are normally turned upward in regular use. 

The labankada is a larger version of the abetiaja that is worn such that the contrasting color of the material used as underlay for the flaps can be seen. 

Some trendy guys may choose to wear a wraparound scarf with their agbada suit (ibora). 

To complete the look, a shoe or sandal (bata) might be worn. 

It's important noting that the agbada isn't only for Yoruba people; it's also present in other regions of Africa. 

The Wolof of Senegambia call it mbubb (French: boubou), while the Hausa and Fulani of the West African savannah call it riga, which the Yoruba adopted. 

Scholars agree that the garments originated in the Middle East and were brought to Africa by Berber and Arab merchants from the Maghreb (the Mediterranean coast) and desert Tuaregs during the trans-Saharan trade, which started in the pre-Christian period and continued until the late nineteenth century. 

While the exact date of its introduction to West Africa is unknown, reports from visiting Arab geographers indicate that it was very popular in the region from the eleventh century onward, particularly in the ancient kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, Songhay, Bornu, and Kanem, as well as the Hausa states of northern Nigeria. 

The riga or mbubb, when worn with a turban, marked a person as an Arab, Berber, desert Tuareg, or Muslim. 

The clothing was traditionally associated with affluence and high rank because to its expensive materials and intricate needlework. 

Those with Arabic calligraphy on them were thought to bring good luck (baraka). 

As a result, by the early nineteenth century, many non-Muslims in Sub-Saharan Africa, particularly monarchs, chiefs, and elites, had embraced the outfit, which they not only adjusted to suit local dress aesthetics, but also replaced the turban with indigenous headgears. 

The more the status and power connected with a robe, the larger it is and the more exquisite its needlework is. 

The Yoruba have two varieties of agbada: informal (agbada iwole) and ceremonial (agbada iwole) (agbada amurode). 

The casual agbada, also known as Sulia or Sapara, is smaller, less voluminous, and often composed of light, plain cotton. 

The Sapara was created in the 1920s and is called after Dr. Oguntola Sapara, a Yoruba medical practitioner who disliked the traditional agbada. 

As a result, he requested that his agbada be made not just smaller and shorter, but also from imported, lightweight cotton. 

On the other hand, the ceremonial agbada is larger, more elaborate, and typically made of more costly and heavier materials. 

The agbada nla or girike is the biggest and most beautifully embroidered. 

The ancient woven cloth known as aso ofi (narrow-band weave) or aso oke (northern weave) is the most valuable fabric for the ceremonial agbada. 

The word aso oke refers to the fact that this sort of cloth was brought to the southern Yoruba by the Oyo Yoruba of the grassland to the north. 

It also alluded to the Oyo's strong cultural ties with their northern neighbors, the Nupe, Hausa, and Fulani, from whom the former borrowed particular clothing and musical instruments. 

On a horizontal loom, a typical narrow-band weave is created in a strip that is four to six inches broad and many yards long. 

The strip is then trimmed to the proper lengths and sewed together to form wide sheets, which are subsequently cut into dress forms and fitted. 

When woven from deep red wild silk fiber, a fabric is called alari; when woven from brown or beige silk, it is called sanyan; and when woven from indigo-dyed cotton, it is called etu. 

In any event, a high-quality cloth with intricate embroidery is expected to boost social exposure by communicating the wearer's taste, position, and rank, among other things. 

To the Yoruba, though, wearing an expensive agbada isn't enough; the body must show it off to its greatest potential. 

An large agbada, for example, may be playfully compared to a sail (aso igbokun), meaning that the wearer risks being blown off course in a windstorm. 

A little agbada, on the other hand, is like the body-tight plumage of a gray heron (ako), whose long legs make the feathers seem overly small for the bird's height. 

In a well-tailored agbada, tall and well-built men are believed to seem more handsome. 

Yoruba women mock such men with nicknames like agunlejika (the square-shouldered one) and agunt'asoolo (the square-shouldered one) (tall enough to display a robe to full advantage). 

The traditional phrase Gele o dun, bii ka mo o we, ka mo o we, ko da bi ko yeni (It is not enough to put on a headgear; it is appreciated only when it fits properly) reflects the Yoruba's emphasis on material quality as well as how well a clothing fits. 

New fabrics, like as brocade, damask, and velvet, have been employed for the agbada since the turn of the century. 

The classic pattern is being updated, as is the needlework. 

The late Oba Adesida, the late monarch of Akure, wore an agbada composed of imported European velvet and partially embroidered with glass beads. 

Instead of a regular hat, the king wears a beaded crown with a veil (ade) that partially covers his face, symbolizing his status as a living ancestor—a role emphasized by his bright, intricate, and costly agbada. 

The agbada, despite its voluminous look, is not as hot as it may seem to a non-Yoruba. 

Aside from the possibility of openwork patterns (eya) on certain textiles, the looseness of an agbada and the frequent adjustment of its open sleeves ventilate the body. 

This is especially true when the body is in motion, such as while dancing and the sleeves are adjusted to accentuate body motions.

~ Jai Krishna Ponnappan

Find Jai on Twitter | LinkedIn | Instagram

See also: 

Africa, Sub-Saharan: History of Dress.

References And Further Reading: 

De Negri, Eve. Nigerian Body Adornment. Lagos, Nigeria: Nige￾ria Magazine Special Publication, 1976.

Drewal, Henry J., and John Mason. Beads, Body and Soul: Art and Light in the Yoruba Universe. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1998.

Eicher, Joanne Bubolz. Nigerian Handcrafted Textiles. Ile-Ife, Nigeria: University of Ife Press, 1976.

Heathcote, David. Art of the Hausa. London: World of Islam Festival Publishing, 1976.

Johnson, Samuel. The History of the Yorubas. Lagos, Nigeria: CMS Bookshops, 1921.

Krieger, Colleen. “Robes of the Sokoto Caliphate.” African Arts 21, no. 3 (May 1988): 52–57; 78–79; 85–86.

Lawal, Babatunde. “Some Aspects of Yoruba Aesthetics.” British Journal of Aesthetics 14, no. 3 (1974): 239–249.

Perani, Judith. “Nupe Costume Crafts.” African Arts 12, no. 3 (1979): 53–57.

Prussin, Labelle. Hatumere: Islamic Design in West Africa. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

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